Let them eat bread: Sudan’s wheat struggle sums up revolution’s opportunities and drawbacks

A transitional government and civil society navigating life in Sudan through the prism of bread two years on

Two years on from the protest movement that screamed “bread and dignity,” the Sudanese are still queuing around the block for the most basic of necessities, even as a transitional government battles systemic corruption.

Sharp rises in bread prices sparked street protests in central Atbara and other cities on December 19 2018, a movement which later opened out to include a plethora of grievances against the government, eventually toppling long-time dictator Omar Al Bashir.

During the reign of Al Bashir, Sudan was suffering from economic sanctions that alienated it in a globalised market. As such, Sudan’s cheapest and only source of wheat imports hailed from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, also known as Black Sea wheat.

Now Sudan looks to a new future with the lifting of economic sanctions as a result of it's removal from the US terror list, thereby opening up doors to potential investors and businesses. Sudan has been receiving, a substantial amount of aid in the form of wheat imports in recent days from Israel, the UAE and US aid in efforts to alleviate its immediate shortages.

But the challenge of providing affordable bread for the public remains. Much like many households around the world, bread is a staple and necessity that is always found on the kitchen counter.

Bread is a common staple alongside the Sudanese protein and legume heavy breakfast, comprised of eggs and fava beans or foul.

"You cant consume foul in any form without bread being there to scoop it up on an ear-shaped piece of bread," said Dallia Abdel Moneim, owner of Dunyat Dallia’s baking business and activist.

On the surface, bread shortages still seem to pose a problem in Sudan’s many local and government-run bakeries. But Amro Zaakria, chief executive of Madarik Finance and adviser to Sudan's Ministry of Trade and Finance, claims it is a manufactured shortage.

“When Sudan receives these wheat shipments, local bakeries bake their daily bread using 30 per cent of the wheat for example, and the remaining 70 per cent gets sold at market price.” Mr Zakraia explained.

In April 2020, subsidized wheat flour in Sudan cost 550 Sudanese pounds , while it was sold in the market for 2300 pounds ($41.4), more than three times its original value.

This is how local bakeries operated under Al Bashir’s rule, where the regime owned most of the bakeries. But these illegal sales of subsidised wheat continue to undermine efforts to reverse the corrupt way of life.

Nevertheless, the transitional government says it is working hard to pave new paths for honest economic growth in Sudan.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s government devised three alternate plans to undermine black market wheat flour sales.

One such step is the creation of 'mega bakeries'. Assisted with financial aid from Egypt, the first bakery in the Nile Valley was opened this week.

It is equipped with ten automated production lines, with a production capacity of up to 1.5 million loaves of bread per day and plans to eventually run off hydropower, according to Hassan Abu Naouf, director of strategic goods at the General Administration of Internal Trade.

These bakeries will be entirely run by the government, in an effort to push out corrupt bread makers. “That way people can buy directly from the ministry’s subsidised bread to minimise selling subsidised flour illegally, Mr Zakaria said.

In recent days, many Sudanese consumers have commented on the brown colour of their daily bread purchase, a new change to the normally white bread.

"Bread is not as white as before, its more brown in colour and has a bran-like texture to it,” said Ms Moneim.

The colour change is due to a government modification to the process of extracting flour from subsidised wheat, resulting in the flour retaining the more organic colour and elements of wheat, in another attempt to curb the illegal selling of subsidized wheat to local gourmet bakeries that would normally use white flour to bake sweets and desserts for sale.

Sudan's younger generation is also joining the fight against corruption. Mr Abu Naouf said young resistance committee members have assigned each household a card with a QR code and are coordinating deliveries via WhatsApp.

As the second anniversary of the uprising looms, Sudanese neighbourhoods are drumming up plans for the festivities, as the neighbourhood councils (lijan) get together and set plans for the celebrations.

A local rounding up of people and resources outside of official government preparations to celebrate a national milestone is also a message to the transitional government.

With the recent devastating floods and alarmingly rapid currency depreciation, the Sudanese people are getting impatient with Mr Hamdok’s transitional government. But activists such as Ms Abdelmonim say Sudan needs to play the long game, to carefully weed out all remnants of the old regime, lurking within many establishments and institutions, much like a local bakery in a small Sudanese village.

The transitional government will remain in power until elections are held in 2022, as agreed by Sudan’s civil society and the military a power-sharing set up in August 2019.

However, the question remains: will Sudan change suppliers of their wheat once the donation from regional countries end? Mr Zakaria doesn’t think so.

“After Sudan is done getting free wheat from US aid over the next four years, it is doubtful Sudan will continue to purchase from anywhere else but the Back Sea region.” Mr Zakaria said.

Ukraine and its neighbouring countries still offer cheaper and more competitive prices for wheat for an economy that is still in recovery after a decades long sanctions and a lifetime of corrupt regime in power.

“Price is the ultimate determinant, irrespective of social and political agreements,” he surmised.

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